I speak to Lucas Dhont on the phone from London. He’s happy and busy, promoting his film Girl, because although he’s not yet 30, he’s already directed his first feature film to critical acclaim, as well as some controversy.

Girl has won, among other awards, the Caméra d’Or for best feature film, as well as the Queer Palm. I ask him if he’s proud of his film. “Yes!” he says excitedly, and when he talks about his work it’s not the awards he talks about but the work itself and the story he has created around the life of a small family going through immense changes in a teenager’s life.

On the surface, Girl is a story about Lara who’s transitioning at the tender age of 15 from a boy to a girl, while at the same time training to become a professional ballerina. But as the story develops, it’s clear that the film’s themes are much more universal than this; it’s a film about growing up, about determination, about a father’s love and a young brother’s loyalty. There’s so much emotion in it that, while Lara’s struggles are quite specific to her own body, it’s impossible not to sympathise with the adolescent struggles she faces.

Dhont himself tells me that it’s during adolescence that “we’re confronted with our own bodies and our own identities”. It’s a very specific moment in time when “we’re exploring who we are and who we want to be”.  It’s a period in our lives too when we’re waiting for time to pass quicker than it does and wanting things to move faster than they do; and for Lara, time cannot pass quickly enough.

We see a loving family life from the film’s first scenes – Lara’s brother waking her up, for example, or the family carrying boxes as they move into their new home. But Lara’s determination, as well as the physical anguish of the film, come out from the very beginning. She pierces her own ears early one morning before her father can stop her. “I just wanted my ears pierced, so I did it,” she says.

Lara is quiet, unassuming in many ways, and doesn’t want to be the centre of attention. Her ambition as a ballerina and the endless hours she spends training and rehearsing until her body is exhausted and unable to take more reflect her determination to change her own body in a much more personal way, as soon as she possibly can.

I ask Dhont about her character and the fact that she seems so quiet, hiding from the limelight. She seems uncomfortable in her own skin except, maybe, when she is dancing. He tells me that her character was loosely based on that of Nora Monsecour, the Belgian trans female dancer on whom the film is based. But it also took from the character of Victor Polster, the (male, cisgender) actor who plays Lara in the film. The film was almost 10 years in the making; the search for the perfect ‘Lara’ was integral to the film’s narrative.

I ask what attracted Dhont to Monsecour’s story and the ballet world she inhabited in her youth. The world of ballet, he says, is very gender-specific; it’s a world of princes and princesses, girls and boys, and its binary nature means that stepping out of a male-female role is extraordinarily difficult.

Add to this the focus on the body, its aesthetics and its movements within the world of dance, and the story of an adolescent trying to find her way in this world, and it becomes clear that this is not an easy world to move in, no matter how supportive a dancer’s family may be.

The metaphors contained in the film are clear and, many times, unforgiving; Lara’s feet are unused to pointe training and she suffers bloody injuries trying to reach the standards expected of her. The manipulation of her feet to fit a pre-ordained mould parallels her visits to her doctors and therapists and her attempts to change her own body.

I mention the controversy around Girl to Dhont – the film has been accused of being a trans story told from a straight, cisgender perspective. But he defends his perspective, saying that it’s healthy to bring diverse voices to the table; in any case, the film does not represent all of a community. It’s about one girl, within one family, going through her own personal challenges.

He hadn’t expected it to be so controversial; he was telling a story of determination and strength that deserved to be told, with all its intricacies, emotions and difficulties. At a certain point in the film, Lara’s father – who loves and supports her throughout her journey – comforts her, telling her he is proud of her and that she’s a role model for people like her. Her answer is quiet, unassuming and quite simple: “I don’t want to be an example. I just want to be a girl.”

Girl is screening at the Spazju Kreattiv cinema from March 26 to April 20. Tickets are available online at www.kreattivita.org/en/event/girl.

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